Pop Culture
May 24, 2024, 06:27AM

The Fleeting Work of Virality

Fame—one of the most dangerous drugs on the market—can be bought cheaply on social media.

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In our celebrity-obsessed culture, the lives of iconic figures like Diddy, Anna Nicole Smith, and the casts of Vanderpump Rules and Chrisley Knows Best hold extraordinary significance. We just love our top celebrities. And why wouldn’t we? As Us Weekly routinely proclaims, “stars—they’re just like us!” Yet, beneath their glittering facades lurks a pervasive and insidious danger: the illusion that the lives of these demigods are more meaningful than those of non-celebs. Such a misconception obscures the reality that all human lives are time-limited and that our scope of action is minimal in the grand scheme of things.

Celebrity status imbues individuals with a false sense of enduring importance. Michael Jackson, once dubbed the “King of Pop” but better known in his later years as “Wacko Jacko,” epitomized this phenomenon. His fame and influence spanned the globe, yet his life was fraught with personal turmoil, legal battles, and an unending quest for approval. Similarly, political figures like presidents and even dictators may be thought to wield immense power and face constant scrutiny, but their actions and legacies are often transient, subject to the whims of history, public opinion, finances, and various other institutional limitations.

The Greek slave and philosopher Epictetus, in his easy-to-read but hard-to-apply “Enchiridion,” asserts, “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” This core Stoic principle highlights the fundamental error in the celebrity's mindset: mistaking external validation and reputation (things not in our control) for personal worth and significance.

Despite their elevated status, celebrities aren’t exempt from the universal truths of mortality and the limited nature of human agency—the world will come to an end for everyone and everything now drawing breath (“sucking wind,” as my father would put it) on this green-blue orb. The belief that lives possess a unique significance is an illusion. The actions of even the most renowned individuals are but fleeting moments, soon overshadowed by the relentless march of time.

Epictetus reminds us, “Don't demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” Such counsel underscores the futility of seeking permanence in a transient world. The true measure of a meaningful life lies not in public adulation but in the tranquility that comes from accepting the natural course of events and focusing on what is within our control.

This is easier said than done—and it’s getting harder by the minute. In the digital age, social media has amplified the illusion of significance, serving up cheap-as-free fleeting hits of virality in a perpetual yet immediately forgettable “right now” that can mimic the celebrity experience. Platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok create an ecosystem wherein Charlie Brown-like non-entities can momentarily taste fame through likes, shares, and trending hashtags related to their trite thoughts, thirst-trapping antics, and other lame-brained shenanigans. However, this semblance of influence is thoroughly ephemeral, driven by algorithms designed to exploit human psychology rather than foster genuine connection or impact.

The allure of social media lies in its promise of instant validation. A single post can garner thousands of likes, giving the illusion that one's voice matters on a global scale, if only for one half of a split second. Yet, as Epictetus advises, “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” The real danger here isn’t the platform itself—though I’d certainly like to ban them all, given that we vain humanzees can’t be trusted with such weapons of self-construction—but the belief that social media engagement equates to meaningful influence.

Social media's role in events like the Arab Spring was initially heralded as proof of its power to drive social change. However, the ultimate outcomes of such movements only reveal the limitations of digital activism. While social media can mobilize and raise awareness, it rarely sustains the structural changes necessary for long-term transformation. The initial euphoria of online movements frequently dissipates, leaving behind disillusionment, unfulfilled promises, and ongoing “slacktivism” in which the post itself is the point, rather than the pie-in-the-sky changes demanded by the post.

Epictetus knows the score: “If you want to improve, reject such forms of reasoning as these: ‘If I neglect my affairs, I'll have no income; if I don't correct my servant, he will be bad.’ For it is better to die with hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation.” The pursuit of virality and online attention can lead to a life fraught with anxiety and disappointment, as it hinges on external validation rather than inner contentment and ethical living.

The approach of the “Enchiridion” offers a remedy to the perils of pursuing significance through celebrity or social media. By focusing on what’s within our control—our actions, thoughts, and reactions—we can cultivate a sense of inner peace and resilience. Epictetus teaches, “Consider, when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellfish, or an onion. However, your thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain to call on board.”

This metaphor reminds us to keep things in perspective. The ship represents our life’s ultimate purpose and goals, while the shellfish and onion symbolize the distractions and minor pursuits that can divert our attention. By focusing on true objectives and not getting sidetracked by fleeting desires or external accolades, we can navigate life with greater purpose and tranquility.

Following this path to true significance is fraught with challenges. It requires constant vigilance and self-discipline, attributes that few individuals possess or are willing to cultivate in an age where sophisticated corporations vie for what’s left of our attention spans. Epictetus cautions, “When you do anything from a clear judgment that it ought to be done, never shun from being seen doing it, even though the world should make a wrong supposition about it.”

Such a course is not for the faint-hearted. "If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things," Epictetus advises. This acceptance of potential ridicule and misunderstanding is a formidable barrier for many. The commitment to inner virtue over external approval demands a level of resilience and self-assurance that few achieve.

The real danger of celebrity lies not in fame itself but in the illusion that it confers lasting significance and control over a destiny already fated to end in death. Whether one is a pop icon or a president, the bedrock truths of human existence—mortality, limited agency, and the transient nature of external validation—remain unchanged. Social media has only exacerbated this illusion, offering momentary hits of fame that distract from meaningful pursuits and looming death.

True significance comes from focusing on what’s within our control and living in accordance with our values. By rejecting the pursuit of external validation and embracing a life guided by reason and virtue, we can, at least for certain brief periods of time, achieve a sense of peace and fulfillment. Doing so, however, requires unwavering dedication to personal growth and a willingness to forgo societal accolades in favor of inner tranquility. As Epictetus urges, “Don't allow such considerations as these distress you. ‘I will live in dishonor, and be nobody anywhere.’ For, if dishonor is an evil, you can no more be involved in any evil by the means of another, than be engaged in anything base.” True significance isn’t about reaching an ideal state of being but about the continual striving towards it, despite the challenges and setbacks.


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